The Contemplation of Feelings through Insight Meditation Practice (Vedananupassana)



Dr. Ashin Parami (Lecturer, ITBMU)

Different kinds of feelings we experience are covered by the term “vadana” in Pali, which is a mental factor,“cetasika.Vedana is a kind of mental state that feels the object.[1]Consciousness, we call it “citta,” only experiences its object; it does not feel. Vedana, however, has the function of feeling: sometimes pleasant,sometimes unpleasant. When we do not have a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling, there is still feeling: at that moment the feeling is neutral or indifferent. There is always feeling; there is no moment of citta without feeling. For example, when a citta arises, feeling (vedana) accompanies it. The citta which sees perceives only visible object; there is not yet like or dislike. The vedana which accompanies this type of citta is indifferent feeling (upekkha or adukkhamasukha). After seeing-consciousness has fallen away, other cittas arise and there may be cittas which like/dislike the object. The vedana which accompanies this type of citta is pleasant/unpleasant feeling (somanassa/domanassa).[2]Although there are normally three kinds of vedana, the Buddhist Abhidhamma sometimes expands this into five kinds: sukha (pleasant feeling in body or bodily happiness), dukkha (painful or unpleasant feeling in body or bodily pain), somanassa (pleasant feeling in mind or mental pleasure), domanassa (unpleasant feeling in mind or mental displeasure) and upekkhæ (neutral feeling or indifference).[3] The whole group of the vedanas is designated as vedanakkhanda, an aggregate of feeling, in the Abhidhamma.

In the practical aspect regarding contemplation of feelings, Mogoke Sayadaw gave a specific instruction for insight meditation classifying the feelings into nine types as follows:

Six External Objects of Meditation

  1. Neutral feeling which arises in eyes (upekkha)
  2. Neutral feeling which arises in ears (upekkha)
  3. Neutral feeling which arises in noses (upekkha)
  4. Neutral feeling which arises at tounge (upekkha)
  5. Pleasant feeling in body (sukha)
  6. Unpleasant feeling in body (dukkha)

Three Internal Objects of Meditation

  1. Pleasant feeling in mind (somanassa)
  2. Unpleasant feeling in mind(domanassa) and
  3. Neutral feeling in mind (upekkha).

Practical Approach to the Six External Objects of Meditation

Of these nine kinds of feelings, we have to begin with six external objects of meditation, among which the clearer object for a beginner is the unpleasant feeling especially that arise in the body (dukkha-vedana). That is in fact painful feeling. We cannot avoid this pain that comes with our body. Therefore, it is the best way for us to make use of it here to develop our mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

In practical aspect, first of all, you have to perceive the different kinds of feeling, they are not persons, nor personal feelings, but the feelings themselves. When you see clearly in this way, your notion of self is automatically removed from your mind because feeling is just feeling, not a person, nor a self nor soul. To get rid of this thought from your mind, you have to watch your painful feeling thoroughly to see as it really is. You have to focus your mind on the place of pain, numbness, stiffness, etc. You will then come to know that the painful feeling is not a person, nor a personal feeling, nor a permanent or lasting feeling by observing the feeling itself. Thus, you are able to remove the concept of being and do away with the notion of self (sakkayaditthi). You realize that there is no one who feels, apart from the feeling itself. In the feeling, you cannot find any self or soul, you just observe the feeling as feeling. If we do not observe our feeling mindfully, we always think that I am feeling well, I am feeling bad. However, there is no ‘I’ in the feeling. By realizing thus, you are able to get rid of the notion of self or soul firmly rooted in your mind long time ago and then your insight also will become sharp.

When you watch the painful feeling (dukkha), you will come to know it does not last, it is not constant, it is not one solid pain. There are different forms of pain, different stages of pain and different moments of pain. One pain comes and goes and then the next goes the same. It is not one continuous thing. When this continuity is removed, you come to know the arising and fading away, the appearing and disappearing of things. Here, the arising and fading away of painful feeling are to be said as ‘dukkha-sacca,’ ‘the truth of suffering’ and knowing is ‘magga-sacca,’‘the truth of the way to nibbana’.

In pure insight meditation, pain is a frequent encounter. This is because you are very aware of the body processes. Therefore, when they arise, you have to watch them mindfully. When pain arises, you get tensed up or frightened. You want to avoid it and escape from it. However, instead of doing that, you should welcome it like a friend. When you are mindful of this painful feeling, you need to be careful of the danger in reacting with anger or irritation towards the pain. If anger arises, you should observe it until it vanishes before going back to observing the painful feeling. When it vanishes, you contemplate the pain, then you will be able to see pain taking various forms – pulling pain, sharp pain, hot pain, aching pain, etc. However, they are not constant, they are changing one after another. Thus, you come to realize the change of pains, the change of dukkha-vedana, that is, the arising and fading away of pain. This change is ‘dukkha-sacca’ and realizing this is ‘magga-sacca.’ Actually, this is just vipassana-magga (vipassana insight), not yet ariya-magga (noble insight).

In this pain management, mindfulness is of great importance. If you are not mindful, you will not be able to face the pain. Only concentration is not supportive enough to face the intense pain and it may make you feel more painful. When you tolerate your painful sensation with anger, your mind will not concentrate on the object of meditation and become distracted by obsessive attention to pain. This happens due to lack of mindfulness.

When you are mindful of the pain, it works together with mindfulness and concentration keeping the mind to the pain. With no mindfulness, if you just keep the mind to the pain, your mind rests on the pain and the pain becomes worse and worse. Then you will experience a small pain as a big pain, an intense pain, an intolerable pain and so on. If your mindfulness is not strong enough, you will easily give up.

You have to hold the mind to the pain and observe it, that is, you send your mind to the place of the pain, hold onto it and identify the different types of pain that is present – small pain, big pain, sour pain, hot pain, ache, hurt, and so forth. All kinds of these pains are not anything else apart from painful feelings. They are just pains, not self, nor soul, nor person. Inquire whether any feeling last long or not, and how long it takes place. Then you will also be able to see how they arise and disappear, how they seem to move from one place to another and so forth. When you come to perceive the change, you see it starting probably as a form of a throb, a series of regular painful movements, then you will come to see the change more and more clearly. Thus you have to be mindful of the change between the painful feelings.

If you see the pain changing and taking various forms, your perception of change and impermanence (anicca) will become clearer. The pain also becomes tolerable with mindfulness, not with anger. There is a useful advice that we do not watch the pain to make it go away but to develop our mindfulness and see its true nature. If you watch accordingly, you will become detached from the body as well as feelings. The main thing is not to sit to want the pain to go away and to sit and develop mindfulness concerning pain. When you are able to see the change between the painful feelings, the characteristic of impermanence becomes obvious to your insight knowledge, the impermanence is anicca and the insight knowledge is magga.

Contemplation of other External Feelings

Only when you are able to be mindful of painful feelings and become tolerable to them, you have to do one more thing, that is, watch bodily happiness, the pleasant feeling in the body (sukha-vedana). It arises when painful feeling disappears or when you experience a desirable object. It is a pleasant bodily feeling or physical comfort. When you meditate well, when you feel ease, when you are feeling good in sitting and meditating and so on, you have pleasant bodily feeling. Every physical comfort you experience is the pleasant feeling (sukha-vedana). You have to be mindful of this feeling focusing your mind on the part of your body where it arises, otherwise you will enjoy and be attached to it. There is an anger in the painful object, likewise there is an attachment in the pleasant object. If you are not mindful of bodily pleasant feeling at the moment of its arising, the attachment will arise in you. In order to prevent the attachment from arising in you, you need to be mindful of and try to see the change of pleasant feeling. Then you will perceive this pleasant feeling is also not personal, nor an ego, nor soul. It is just a feeling, not an everlasting thing, it changes momentarily. Thus you see the real nature of the pleasant feeling, it is coming and going, dukkha-sacca, the truth of suffering. Wise attention and seeing properly as it really is is magga-sacca, the truth of the path leading to nibbana.

As a matter of fact, sukha (pleasant feeling or bodily happiness) is not a far separated thing from dukkha (unpleasant feeling or bodily pain). When you watch sukha mindfully, you come to see the disappearance of it and then dukkha appears. While it is arising, it is sukha, but after disappearance of it, it is dukkha. Therefore, the Dhammasa³ga¼ø-anu-¥økæ gives advice of this nature thus: “thitisukham viparinamadukkhaµ.”[4]

When you manage to see the arising and fading away of sukha and dukkha mindfully, go another step, the contemplation of upekkha which arises in the eye, ear, nose, and tongue. When you see something, the eye-consciousness arises; you do not feel good or bad yet at the moment as soon as you see, that feeling of neither pleasure nor displeasure is upekkha. The same applies to the ear, nose and tongue. Actually, this upekkha arises simultaneously together with eye-consciousness in the eyes, ear-consciousness in the ears, nose-consciousness in the noses and tongue-consciousness in the tongue. Therefore, when you work on this type of upekkha, you have to watch mindfully the arising and fading away of upekkha concentrating your mind in your eyes at the moment of seeing or as soon as you see something, concentrating your mind in your ears at the moment of hearing, concentrating your mind in your noses at the moment of smelling and concentrating your mind at your tongue at the moment of eating something.To elaborate this, when you see, upekkha arises in your eyes together with eye-consciousness. Generally, you may think you are seeing now, however, when you are mindful of it, it is not you that is seeing, it is just upekkha-vedana or eye-consciousness that sees. When you realize this nature in your own wisdom while you are watching, the concept of wrong view as a person or soul is automatically removed from your mind. And you come to see fast disappearing of upekkha-vedana, even without being watched. When you watch it, it has gone. It does not last so that it can be watched. In this way, when you watch it, it disappears and you see its disappearance only. When you are mindful, you know the upekkha is arising in the eyes and when your wisdom follows it, your wisdom eye is not able to see anything, it just sees nothingness left by upekkha’s passing away. Before your intuitive mind reaches to the feeling, it has already disappeared. To this, Mogoke Sayadawgyi used to say, “the arising and disappearing come first, then magga follows them.” When you are mindful, you know the arising and when you watch, you see the fading away of upekkha. Here, the arising and fading away aredukkha-sacca and watching is maggasacca. In this way, you have to be mindful of upekkha that arises in ears, noses and tongue as well.

Contemplation of three Internal Objects of Meditation

One more step is to watch inside your heart through your wisdom eye to see the nature of internal feelings. Regarding the wisdom eye here, it refers to the mind you see the nature of your own feelings. In order to see this, you have to send your mind into your heart so that you can perceive what type of feelings is arising at that moment, the internal feelings: pleasant feeling in mind (somanassa), unpleasant feeling in mind (domanassa) and neutral feeling in mind (upekkha). If you do not contemplate the pleasant feeling, the attachment will continue arising. Therefore, when you feel happy, pleasant, or pleasurable, the pleasant feeling arises in you. When you contemplate it, you come to see it is not an everlasting thing, it does not last long, it does not take even for a second. That is the impermanence of that feeling, its nature is arising and fading away. When you realize this nature, you are not attached to that feeling. The attachment cannot follow it. In this way, you are able to make the cause of the future stop, to break the dependent origination (paticca­samuppada). The arising and fading away are dukkha-sacca, contemplation is magga-sacca, death of attachment is samudaya-sacca – the cause of suffering, and to stop arising future aggregates is nirodha-sacca – cessation of suffering.

When joy and the peaceful states of consciousness arise, and you feel happy, then you have to watch it mindfully. Make sure you watch very energetically when happy feelings arise. In this case, you need to concentrate your mind on your heart, penetrating inside, because this mental pleasure, or pleasant feeling normally arises in mind. The mind usually arises in your heart as its basic. So you have to focus your mind on the mental pleasant feeling in your heart, and see how it arises, how it works, how you feel happy, how you are satisfied with something, in order to see the happy situation arising in your heart, that is ‘good feeling in heart.’ Then you come to see the instant change of that feeling as well and perceive as the pleasant feeling arises and passes away mindfully, then you can proceed to watching the happy feelings, and their arising and passing away. The instant change is dukkha-sacca, and perceiving the nature of feeling is magga-sacca.

If you do not contemplate the unpleasant feeling, the anger will continue arising. Therefore, when you feel unhappy, unpleasant, or dis-pleasurable, or when you feel sorry, sad, depressed, angry, etc. the unpleasant feeling arises in you. When you contemplate it, you come to see it is not an everlasting thing, it does not last long, it does not take even for a second. That is the impermanence of that feeling, its nature is arising and fading away. When you realize this nature, you do not feel disagreeable to that feeling. The anger cannot follow it. In this way, you are able to make the cause of the future stop, to break the dependent origination.

Neutral feelings are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. When you come across sense objects, you feel neither pleasure nor displeasure nor can they give up the object. Thus neutral feeling (upekkha-vedana) arises in you. Usually, neutral feeling can only be perceived by the more advanced meditators. In more advanced meditation, when you watch neutral feelings, you will find that they are the subtlest of all feelings. It is in the equanimity derived from neutral feelings that makes the mind become really peaceful and concentrated. And neutral feelings may occur when you reach higher stages of vipassana knowledge and experience the feeling of neutrality. In this, you do not have to put in much effort in contemplating the object, it just comes to them by itself. So at this time, you have this feeling of neutrality, the feeling of equanimity. When you do not watch the neutral feeling mindfully, ignorance will arise in you, thus the pa¥iccasamuppada continues as usual. Therefore, when this feeling arises in you, you must be mindful of it. Then, ignorance or delusion cannot arise when you are perceiving the true nature of neutral feeling while you are aware of the arising and fading away of neutral feeling. Thus, the arising and fading away are dukkha-sacca, awareness is magga-sacca, the death of ignorance is samudaya-sacca, and inability of future aggregates to arise is nirodha-sacca. In this way, you will be able to be aware of the rising and fading away of whatever feelings your are experiencing. You will then reach higher and higher stages of vipassana knowledge until you reach the level of attainment.

This is the way you should manage to observe the feelings during meditation. When you see the arising and fading away of feeling, the yathabhuta-ñana [5](the wisdom which sees as it is) will arise as first level of vipassana meditation. If you keep contemplating energetically the arising and fading away, your wisdom will become strong enough to feel disgusted in the contemplation of these arising and falling apart. Then you reach the second level of meditation, nibbinda-ñana[6](the wisdom of dispassion). Without stopping though you reach this level, if you continue working on this same meditation, your wisdom becomes sharp and finally reaches the sharpest state and you cannot find arising and disappearing under your wisdom eye.[7]Then, you reach the final level of meditation, magga-ñana[8] (insight wisdom, or intuitive knowledge). Then you come to see the light of nibbana through your wisdom eye for the first time and you become a sotopanna, a stream winner. In this way, you have to restart with arising and disappearing to reach another magga, repeat up to four times to the final stage of magga, that is, arahattamagga. Then you experience ultimately the bliss of the final liberation, nibbæna.

Dr. Ashin Parami (Lecturer)

International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University

Mayangone, Yangon

  1. Third International Conference of Buddhist Meditation Practices & Buddhist Psychology Focusing on Pain Management (Vedananupassana), 2nd and 3rd, January, 2015, ITBM University, Myanmar, as a presenter, with the paper of “The Contemplation of Feelings through Insight Meditation Practice (Vedananupassana)


[1]Sabbapi arammararasam vedayanti anubhavantiti vedana(Atthasalini, p. 84).

[2] Buddhaghosa, Atthasilinø, p. 153.

[3]Vibhangapali, (Yangon, Myanmar: Department of Religious Affairs, 1983), p. 15.

[4] Dhammasanganianutika, p.39.

[5] The direct meaning of this term is the wisdom that see the arising and fading away.

[6] Its direct meaning is wisdom of tedium or boredom due to seeing the arising and fading away whenever you watch through your wisdom eye

[7]“Vedananam khaya bhikkhu, nicchato parinibbþuto” (Salayatanavaggaplii, p.407) You have to observe up to the end of feelings. If there are no arising and disappearing under your wisdom eye while you are watching, it is said that you reach at the end of feeling.

[8] This is the wisdom which sees the void of arising and fading away while you are watching.

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